Human concerns – José Echegaray y Eizaguirre (1832-1916)

See on this site – The leading Spanish dramatist of the last quarter of the 19th century. Along with poet Frédéric Mistral, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1904. Echegaray started to write plays at the age of forty-two. His style changed little during his career. Echegaray’s works are noted for their high degree of technical skill and their ability to keep audiences engaged despite relatively simple and melodramatic plots.
“Like his forebears, he knows how to present conflict, is extremely moving and vitally interested in different temperaments and ideals, and like them he enjoys studying the most complicated cases of conscience. He is complete master of the art of producing in the audience pity and fear, the well-known fundamental effects of tragedy. Just as in the masters of the old Spanish drama, there is in him a striking union of the most lively imagination and the most refined artistic sense.” (C. D. af Wirsén, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, on his presentation speech of José Echegaray).

José Echegaray was born in Madrid to parents of Basque descent. The family moved to Murcia, where his father held a professorship in Greek at the Institute of Murcia. At the age of fourteen Echegaray returned to Madrid. He graduated from the Escuela de Caminos in 1853 and became a professor of mathematics of the same institute. He published papers and treatments in his field, gaining fame as the foremost Spanish mathematician of his time. He taught at the engineering school until 1868. Later he served in various official posts. Echegaray was named minister of commerce in the 1860s and elected to the Cortes, the Spanish parliament in 1869. He also played a major role in developing the Banco de España. In 1866 he was admitted to the Academy of Exact Sciences of Madrid.

Echegarays’s first play, EL LIBRO TALONARIO, was produced in 1874 under the pseudonym Jorge Hayaseca y Eizaguirre when he was 42 years old. The play was born in temporary exile in Paris. Despite his busy political career, Echegaray found time to write plays for the next three decades, producing average of two plays a year. About half of his sixty plays were written in verse. Among his popular works were LA ESPOSA DEL VENGADOR (1874), EN PUÑO DE LA ESPADA (1875), and O LOCURA O SANTIDAD (1877). It was translated into English in 1895 and brought the author to international attention. In the story Lorenzo Avendaño inherits a fortune, but after discovering that he is not the real heir of the wealth, he tries to give it back. However, his greedy relatives have another opinion about the matter, and they place him in an asylum. Influence by the work of the great Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen, Echegaray began to explore social issues. EL HIJO DE DON JUAN (1892) inspired by Ibsen’s The Ghosts, and EL GRAN GALEOTO (1881, The Great Galeoto), his best-known work, depicted the destructive consequences of gossips. Rumor spreads that a play by a young writer, Ernesto, depicts his relationship to Don Julián’s young wife Teodora. Don Julián defends his wife in a duel with a Viscount, and dies – believing that the gossip was true. Ernesto kills the Viscount and leaves with Teodora. The title of the play refers to Galahad, the knight who brought Lancelot and Queen Guinevere together. In the play the consequences of the unite Teodora and Ernesto.

“Although the public consistently received Echegaray’s plays with enthusiasm, the young intellectuals and writers of the day criticized extreme sentiment and exaggerated style of his dramas as artificial and outmoded. Critics attributed his “originality” to eclectic influences from the general European theatre, notably French naturalism and Ibsen… While the neoromantic elements of Echegaray’s plays have historical significance in that they reflect the popular taste of his day, they have little appeal for present-day audiences.” (Andrés Franco in McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of World Drama, vol. 2, ed. by Stanley Hochman, 1984).

From the 1870s to 1904, when Echegaray received the Nobel Prize, he was the leading Spanish dramatist. He was elected to the Royal Spanish Academy in 1894 and in 1904 he served briefly as head of the Treasury. The literary generation that followed Echegaray, the so-called Generation of 1898, considered his works outmoded. In 1912 Echegaray was awarded the Order of the Golden Fleece by King Alfonso XII. He died in Madrid on September 14, 1916. Echegaray’s work opened the way for the later playwrights, such as Jacinto Benavente, to revolutionize Spanish drama. (Read more here).

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